The Candidate by Samuel Popkin (2012) is about the different types of presidential campaigns and how they should be run. Popkin is a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego and a sometime presidential campaign adviser. To my surprise, the book was not as fascinating as I was expecting; this effect is due not to its central subject matter but to the abstract way it is sometimes presented by its author. Still, Popkin’s approach to presidential campaigns is worth a discussion.
Popkin divides presidential campaigns into three types: the challenger, the incumbent and the successor. The challenger is from the opposite party of the incumbent or departing president, and thus mounts a campaign based around themes of change (e.g. Barack Obama in 2008). The incumbent is the sitting president, who faces a very different electorate from the challenger; his or her task is to persuade people to vote for more of the same. The successor is from the same party as the departing president, and has to try to differentiate herself from the current president while still holding on to his voters (e.g. Hillary Clinton in 2016).
Popkin goes through the challenges that are unique to each type of campaign, but many of these are intuitive and his analysis does not really add much to what you could conclude from some armchair-thinking. For example, successors must balance the imperative of being their “own man” and being perceived as a fresh face while holding on to their party’s base. Popkin focusses on the organizational traits that a candidate and his surrounding team must have, rather than the strategy, platform or policies of any particular candidate. This neglect of the particular in favour of the general sometimes damages the quality of his writing and the impact of his arguments. General tips such as “Candidates should be comfortable with delegating decisions” come across as obvious and sometimes meaningless without the context of juicy examples, e.g. from Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
To be fair I think Popkin is aware of this defect and tries to correct for it by spending some time on three presidential campaigns in particular, and this is where his book does get interesting. The campaigns he chooses to talk about are George Bush Sr’s 1992 campaign as the incumbent, Hillary Clinton’s failed bid to be the challenger in 2007/8 and Al Gore’s campaign to succeed Bill Clinton in 2000. How these campaigns differ in structure and why they all failed is truly engaging as subject matter, but I think Popkin would have covered it better by spending a chapter laying out the narrative of every presidential campaign in the modern era, and then drawing some conclusions from the successes and failures of each campaign cycle. Such an approach would have added more weight to his arguments, given the reader the stories of the campaigns that we crave and rid his writing of the academic overhang that dogs it throughout the book.
In contrast to books like Game Change and Double Down, this was not the page-turner I was expecting. I started it in 2013, and only just finished it this month. I had hoped for an incisive autopsy of modern presidential campaigns, with non-obvious ideas about the organization, vision and character that it takes to run a presidential campaign. Instead Popkin writes a disappointingly unperceptive account of modern presidential campaigns; he focusses on hammering home the lessons that a casual observer of US politics should already know. Yet his writing was always clear and his points unavoidable, for which credit is due.
Would I recommend this book to a fellow politico? Probably not. If you’re interested in the personalities that drive successful campaigns, I would recommend the books I linked to above, and even a ‘fictional’ book like Primary Colors. And if you’re looking for a far better-written review of this book, I recommend the New York Times review here.
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